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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

10 Most Helpful Study Tips for Physician Assistant Students

10 Most Helpful Study Tips for First Year PA Students


The way you studied in undergrad may not always be the most effective or efficient way of studying while in PA school, as I have learned. As you begin your journey, or if you are already well on your way, you might find a few of these study tips helpful to increase the breadth of knowledge you are able to digest.


Anytime I get bogged down in the amount of material we are required to know for an exam, or how uneventful a lecturer may make your Friday morning at 8:00 AM, I just remember that I am learning this information to help save someone’s life one day. We can never forget that. What may seem unimportant or like “useless” information will probably be the most important thing you’ll learn your entire career and it could potentially mean the difference between life and death for a patient. The day that you decide that it is acceptable to receive poor grades in a course “as long as you pass” is the day you have failed your profession.
We should all be mindful that it is a privilege to become a physician assistant, we are not entitled to it. As such, we should always be at our top performance, even when time is scarce and powerpoints are plentiful. That does not mean you should stress yourself out to the point where you do not have a life, but it means that you should always strive to do your best, learn as much as you can, and actually remember what you learn. Being able to apply your knowledge is more important than memorizing a bunch of semantic information and getting an A in a course. The real world is not a multiple choice test, but it is also not as simple as following an algorithm. Not every patient will always fall into a well-defined “category” and not every patient can be treated with guidelines. Something important to remember as you learn is that what we learn as students is just the surface of the knowledge that we are expected to know. Medicine itself is not clear cut and many patients will not fall into the black or white, but rather, the gray area. When you study, study because you want to learn all you can so that you can give your patient’s the best experience possible. Learn and adapt because you want to be able to provide care to those in need, even in the most complex situations. Care because you should be proud to be a part of the best profession there is.


Below you will find a list of the 10 most helpful study tips for physician assistant students. It is important to differentiate between active and passive learning. Physician assistant school requires active learning, not passive learning (used in pre-PA education). Active learning requires you to continually ask yourself questions like, “Where have I seen this in an earlier lecture before?”, “Is this important?”, “How does this fit into the big picture?”, and “How can I better organize this information to understand it?” An example of passive learning would be reading loads of textbook crap the night before your exam after re-highlighting your already highlighted notes hoping to absorb the insurmountable load of information. By the time you know it, you’ve highlighted the entire page and everything cannot be that important! You have to make a decision of what is truly important and what you will focus your attention on.


  1. Utilize powerpoints and handouts first, then use extra resources (textbook, YouTube videos, websites) if you have time. PA school will present an enormous amount of information you never thought was possible to squeeze into a single semester. You must first have a basic understanding of medicine before you can begin learn anything beyond that. Also, please use your head and utilize the class syllabus. It often contains much of the information about what content is covered in the course and the materials required.


Youtube sites for PA students: HyperHighs, CrashCourse, SciShow, KhanAcademy


  1. Find an effective and efficient method for taking your own notes. Whether this is reorganizing your notes, putting extra information in red, or highlighting key concepts, finding your own method of note taking is essential. Using Notability or Evernote apps for the iPad seem to be very popular among PA students. If handwriting your notes is not possible because your lecturer talks too quickly, then you might consider taking notes digitally on your PDF file, typing up your notes into Word or into the “notes” section of the powerpoint. OneNote is Microsoft’s note taking service that can be used from any device, on any system, and is backed up on a cloud. If you choose to print your notes, print the slides 6 per page in black and white and take notes in the margins with red or blue ink. Use highlighters later when reviewing to highlight key points. If you read textbook pages, put page numbers that correspond to slides. It will help you when you review if you do not understand something. To aid your memorization, start by memorizing the headings you created and how many of them there are. Next, memorize the headings themselves using acronyms or mnemonics. Lastly, memorize the information associated with each heading - I find that creating anecdotal stories sometimes aides my thinking in order to help me remember. Let’s be clear - I do not endorse memorizing everything. There is some degree of memorization required for PA school, but in order to retain information, you must learn it, not memorize it. Learning information requires repetition and understanding, which is obtained through integration of material into stories or by drawing pictures or acting it out.
  2. Formulate acronyms or mnemonics (actually remember them). Creating an acronym or mnemonic is only half the battle. Remembering what it means, what it is used for, and knowing the details beyond that acronym are the most important. If you can’t remember your acronym two days after you created it, you have not gone over your material enough. Do not put off memorizing the material until just days before the exam. Start as soon as you learn the material.
  3. When in doubt, write or draw it out. This method is probably best for courses like anatomy, neuroscience, or physiology. Creating flash cards is also helpful for courses like pharmacology, where lots of semantic information is being tested and lots of overlap exists. Draw out nerves or vessels and trace them through bony landmarks prior to going to lab. While in lab, take your drawings and use them to help you navigate through your cadaver. This will reinforce your understanding. Then when you study, it will be easier to remember what the body looked like when you are looking at the drawings. If you are in physiology or neuroscience and get to a complex process that does not quite make sense or is difficult to understand, draw it out on a white board. If that still does not help, look up a YouTube video or website to help explain the concept.
  4. Create tables, charts, lists, diagrams and make comparisons. This is probably more helpful for a course like clinical medicine or pharmacology. Drawing comparisons between drugs, indications, or treatments can mean the difference between knowing something and understanding something. Actively memorize these charts, tables, etc. Review them and quiz yourself and have others quiz you again and again, and again. Even after finals, check your knowledge to ensure the fundamentals still remain.
  5. Focus on the “big picture” concepts the first time you go through your notes. Later, learn the nitty gritty details. This means adding major headings and subheadings within the notes and in the left margin in a different color ink or marker to reinforce the organization of the lecture. These force you to analyze the material and learn it by categorizing the information in your head and it will speed up how you are able to integrate the information. Your last step should be to utilize the book for understanding, unless your professor has said otherwise. Only pull the most important information or concepts from the book or highlight them and review them later. For more complex concepts, do not be afraid to provide short summaries to provide adequate explanation.
  6. Change your study strategy for different courses. Studying alone or with others may mean a change in your performance on exams and the way you memorize information. Quiz one another and make sure you and your partners understand concepts before moving on. Quizlet has been one of the best resources for our PA class. If you are waiting in line at a register or on the toilet, whip out your Netter’s flashcards on Quizlet and start practicing! Remember, folks, sharing is caring. If you reach a roadblock, formulate an acronym or mnemonic to help everyone remember. Explaining it to yourself first helps a lot, but explaining it to another partner helps even more. Just remember that you need to take a stab at the material beforehand and study on your own before meeting up with your buddies. If not, it can lead to insecurity, making you think you are not smart enough or making you think you will not be prepared in time for the exam.
  7. Manage your time well. This can be approached in two ways. First off, control your studying and take frequent breaks. Plan to get certain amounts of lectures “covered” or chapters read in one sitting and then watch an episode of Dexter or whatever your fancy may be. If that does not work for your, time your studying and study straight for an hour or two and then take a break and walk your pet, etc. Plan your studying and make time in your schedule for studying much like when you put “Movies with friends” at “7:30 PM” into your iCal, you can put “Study Pharmacology” from “8:00 AM to 4:00 PM” or whatever time you choose. Set realistic goals for yourself and do not be upset if you don’t get all of the studying you wanted to get done in that time. Sometimes you will underestimate how much material you have to cover and memorize in that amount of time. Be careful that you are managing your time effectively and always portion out your available time evenly, giving each course adequate study time. You never want to be stuck in the situation where you put all of your studying into pharmacology for the 3 days until the test, when you’ve known that you had a pathology test the day after it for 2 weeks. Even skipping class has its consequences, as skipping class can cause you to have to review the material in the book or listen to lecture at home assuming the lecture is posted online in a timely manner. You also can never predict when the professor is going to give extra handouts, an in class quiz, or draw a diagram in class, so don’t skip! Turn your phone on vibrate or silent, block websites you are addicted to (Facebook, Pinterest, etc), and isolate yourself from distraction while you study so that you can focus and be more productive during your study time. Focus booster. Nanny (Chrome), and SelfControl (Mac) can aid with controlling extraneous distraction. If studying with music helps you focus, then do that. If you are having trouble focusing in class or while studying, consider seeing a psychiatrist and get yourself on something to help you concentrate. Do not for one second let PA school take control of your life.
  8. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Utilize your human resources, literally. Older students and professors can be a huge help if you ask the right questions like what the best resources and study methods are for courses, what to focus your attention on when given a table full of information, etc. Asking the professor for old exams is not illegal. The worst that can happen is that they say, “no,” and you move on with your life. Testing yourself with realistic questions will help you see where your weaknesses remain. Just make sure you know why the incorrect answers are incorrect before moving on. If obtaining old exams is not possible, try purchasing a “Step-up to Medicine” or similar PANCE study book and answering questions from a study book as you go. Our class Facebook group even made some of our own test questions for each other as practice. Always utilize technology around you. Our class uses Dropbox and GoogleDrive to share PDF files, spreadsheets/tables, charts, diagrams, and anything else we create on our own. It helps because we can always choose to pass it down to our “littles” next year. They function almost the same, but GoogleDrive allows multiple users to edit a file simultaneously, so we used them to create our “drug cards” for pharmacology.
  9. Set your own goals. Setting your own goals begins with day-to-day lists or calendars of what you plan to get done. Then you must look farther and decide what type of a clinician you want to be. Do you want to be a good PA, a great PA, or an excellent PA? It is easy for us to get bogged down in school and say “screw this” or “I’m so over it,” but we really have to keep in mind the long term goal. Creating your own standard enables you to maintain your own level of sanity while also allowing you to be carefree about the performance of your peers. PA school should not be a competition; that’s what undergrad was for. Getting a B or C is not the end of the world if you tried your hardest, but you are only letting yourself down if you are just trying to “get by” or “pass.” What I am trying to get across is that, as a profession, we should not let ourselves think that it is okay to perform any less than our best just because we are physician assistants and not physicians. You should hold yourself to the highest standard possible and perform your best. This doesn’t mean that we should be competitive or talk about grades, but rather, we should always be at our top performance, regardless of how our peers choose to perform.


Anatomy
Since I have already written a post on my blog specific to anatomy tips and tricks, I won’t go into too much detail. Anatomy can be very easy or very difficult depending on whether you know how to study or not for the course. Unlike any other course, you will probably be responsible for knowing lots of detail and spatial relationships. Remember that if you can form a mnemonic or acronym to help you remember arteries, the muscles used at each joint, or what is contained in the triangular space, you will perform much better on an exam. Drawing vasculature or nerves with indications of bony landmarks they pass through will also help you if you try to draw it out before coming to lab. Sometimes pictures stick a lot better in your mind when you have drawn them out yourself. Reading your lab manual the night before and using a medical text to locate each of the required landmarks will also improve your knowledge of the human body. It is much easier to find a landmark or object when you already have a good idea what you are looking for and where it is located. Lastly, our program offered about 5 old exams from previous years for the laboratory and classroom components. Studying from old exams may not give you the answers to your exam, but going through each one and knowing why the other choices are incorrect will help solidify your understanding. I suggest using one anatomy atlas (Netter or Grant’s) during the semester. Only use other atlas’ if yours does not have good graphics or does not explain something well enough. If you can explain something or point out to someone all of the vessels of the leg, you should good. Practicing and going over structures in the lab really helped me to understand the anatomical differences between each patient. If your school offers multiple cadavers during your lab, I would suggest studying from other cadavers instead of your own, so you can gain an adequate understanding of the variability.


Physiology and Neuroscience
These courses encompass a lot of material. Occasionally, you might get a lecture where the powerpoint just does not make any sense. When this happened to me, I decided to type out the lecture and reorganize it. Sometimes our professors are very knowledgeable about a subject, but when they present it, it may not flow as easily as they had planned. Reorganization of slides or lecture notes can sometimes be extremely useful. If you can put your notes in a format that is readily readable to you or that you find useful for studying, it will most likely improve your understanding and stick better. When I would type lecture notes in class I would type text from the slide in black and use red for extra notes the professor would give us in class. It helped me a lot because I could clearly tell what was required semantic information and what was extraneous, concept-solidifying information. While I do not necessarily endorse re-listening to all lectures over again, I do endorse students recording lectures (if your school does not) in case you might miss an important concept or misunderstand something. Several students in our class would even replay lectures on their commute to school if they were driving or riding a train. Sometimes recording yourself as you study aloud can be helpful as well, as you can listen to your own voice recording of your own notes.


Pharmacology
First off, I never realized how much changing my study style would impact my learning. This was especially evident in pharmacology when I did not perform as well studying alone. Pharmacology is one course where there are lots of similarities, but it’s the differences between drugs that you get tested on. Creating drug cards has been very helpful, but our class forms them as a team. Instead, I formulate my own drug cards because it helps me learn when I am investigating and writing out each section myself. With my own drug cards, I combine drugs into their class and compare drugs within each class. Then after all of my drug cards are finished, I make connections between each class, citing similarities and differences. Occasionally it may be helpful to make lists of drugs with one particular adverse effect (ex. QT Prolonging drugs). First I would study from my own drug cards, memorizing as much as I could. On the day before the exam, I would meet up with other students and quiz one another and go through each drug card. Talking over the drugs and formulating anecdotal stories can help you remember hard-to-memorize concepts. Think about all of the drug-drug interactions for Rifampin, for example. You won’t have to memorize them if you can group them into categories and learn them that way.


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17 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Looking forward to starting PA school this summer!

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    1. Thanks for reading! Good luck in PA school!

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  2. Very nice! Thanks for all of the useful info on your blog! I start PA school next summer :)

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    1. Congratulations and thanks for reading! I'll be posting new content soon. Keep an eye out for it!

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  3. Strong study skills are essential to succeed in school and in life. It isn't enough to just sit inside a classroom and hope to soak up the knowledge an instructor is presenting. You must put effort into learning, understanding, and applying the material.

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    1. Definitely agree with this! Motivated individuals will have the highest success.

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  4. I start at USC Fall 2016. Excited! Thanks for the information!

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    1. Congratulations! Thanks for reading and look for new content coming soon!

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  5. Thanks for sharing your tips! These few months before school starts feel so...weird. Like I should be doing something to prepare but everyone says to relax! Reading through a few of your blog posts a few times a week makes me feel like I'm doing SOMETHING to get in the right mindset, and you give great advice! So thanks so much for putting this together for all of us on the other side!

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    1. Thanks for reading Megan! I appreciate the feedback and look forward to putting out more posts in the future.

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  6. Would you be willing to share your drug review/comparison cards for pharm? I have the HIPPO resource and Pathoma, but I feel like I am missing a good resource for pharm

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    1. Hi Susan,

      Of course! I am planning several pharmacology reviews in the near future :) Keep an eye out. Of course, its challenging to write many articles in as much detail as I like to write while I'm in school, so please be patient, but they are coming. Hopefully I'll have more out soon since I finish school in November.

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  7. Hi! Great article! I also found a page that was very helpful for me when learning anatomy – https://practiceanatomy.com/
    Give it a try, I hope it will help!
    Good luck with exams and anatomy!

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    1. Hey Sonca,

      Thanks for the tip! I'll be sure to check that site out in the near future and hopefully be able to recommend it to my readers. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  8. I have been enjoying picmonic as a different way of studying. Check it out http://www.picmonic.com/pathways/physician-assistant as

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  9. I wish I had this blog about a year ago, but I start in 2017 and will be visiting this frequently. Thanks for all of the information.

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